New Clarke Hotel general manager optimistic about future

Christopher Kuhagen
The Clarke Hotel, which is under new leadership, has two interested operators for the restaurant in downtown Waukesha. General Manager David Smart said the restaurant and bar could be filled by spring or early summer.
Published on: 1/7/2014

The Clarke Hotel in downtown Waukesha has always appealed to David Smart.

"I stayed at the property after it opened and fell in love with it," said Smart, the hotel's new general manager.

Smart was previously with Hilton Garden Inn in Oconomowoc and before that served as a realty property manager and banquet coordinator at several other Wisconsin properties.

But working in Waukesha and at the high-end boutique hotel means a lot to him.

"I was born and raised in Waukesha and really enjoyed watching the downtown renaissance over the past 15, 20 years," said Smart, who earned a degree in sociology from Carroll University.

However, while some businesses have thrived in downtown, The Clarke Hotel's bar and restaurant has struggled since the hotel, at 314 W. Main St., opened in late 2008.

After the Black Trumpet closed and a successor restaurant, D Mo's Italian Pasta & Chop House, followed suit, the view people have seen for more than a year from Main Street is an empty, dark space.

Smart said that could soon change.

"Two operators are interested in the restaurant and bar space," Smart said. "I can't say who they are, but both have other restaurants in southeastern Wisconsin."

Smart said "there have been ongoing negotiations for a few months" with the interested parties.

He expects the restaurant and bar to open by spring or early summer.

"I'm looking forward to offering room service once again to our guests," Smart said.

Smart acknowledged the vacated restaurant gives the hotel "a little bit" of a bad perception in downtown.

However, Smart said the hotel had a solid 2013.

"Occupancy was about 55 percent this past year," Smart said. "Industrywide it's 65 to 70 percent so we're looking to achieve that in 2014. Revenue is up from 2012 but there's always room for growth."

The year started off rocky after the Sheboygan-based Community Bank & Trust, which financed two loans for The Clarke Hotel, filed a foreclosure suit against it.

Madison-based IDM Group LLC, is the new hotel development and management firm for The Clarke Hotel and was responsible for bringing Smart on board.

During the hotel's development phase, the city gave then-owners Drew Vallozzi and Andy Ruggeri two loans worth $1.5 million. One totaled $750,000 in development incentives through tax incremental financing that would be paid back by the increase in property value and a separate $750,000 interest-free loan to be paid back in room taxes.

Smart said the bank now owns the building and hired IDM Group LLC in the spring to manage the hotel. Smart said the hotel continues to pay room taxes.

Former Mayor of Waukesha Larry Nelson helped lead the effort to transform the former flop house and downtown eyesore into a 20-room hotel.

While it has had its financial struggles since opening, Smart is optimistic about the hotel's future.

He said "there's definitely" a need for a hotel in downtown Waukesha.

"The hotel is in very good condition being only five years old," Smart said. "It's really done a lot to let people outside of the community visiting to see how nice downtown has become. And certainly the Waukesha community can support it."